Jalin Hyatt's early success a silver lining in Tennessee's struggling football season

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee freshman receiver Jalin Hyatt had two catches for 86 yards and a touchdown during last month's loss to Alabama inside Neyland Stadium.

Tennessee was struggling deep into its 2014 football season when the Volunteers put their trust in sophomore quarterback Josh Dobbs, who delivered a riveting overtime upset at South Carolina that helped ignite the program to three consecutive bowl victories.

Perhaps it's time to rely on a new offensive No. 11, only this one's a freshman.

If there is a silver lining in Tennessee's season that is currently mired in a four-game losing streak, it has been the promising play of receiver Jalin Hyatt. The 6-foot, 175-pounder from Dutch Fork High School in Irmo, South Carolina, has receptions of 48, 38 and 36 yards, with his 48- and 38-yard gains coming against Alabama and its future NFL defensive backs inside Neyland Stadium on Oct. 24.

"That definitely boosted my confidence," Hyatt said Tuesday afternoon on a Zoom call. "That was like the first game I was in a lot, and it was against a great team. Just to go out there and compete with the guys at Alabama made me more confident."

The Vols were scheduled to host No. 5 Texas A&M this Saturday, but the game was postponed Tuesday afternoon due to coronavirus concerns within the Aggies program.

Hyatt's 48- and 38-yard catches against the Crimson Tide represent Tennessee's two longest plays from scrimmage this season, with the 38-yarder resulting in a touchdown midway through the second quarter that pulled the Vols within 21-10 in their eventual 48-17 loss. He also has a 36-yard catch against Missouri, which ties senior receiver Josh Palmer for the third-longest play for the Vols.

Tennessee third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt said this week that offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has to call "an aggressive game" after the Vols had a mundane showing, especially after halftime, during last Saturday night's 24-13 loss at Arkansas. Pruitt's words are sweet music to Hyatt's ears.

"You like to hear that from a receiver's standpoint," Hyatt said. "You try and do the best for your team, and I believe in Coach Pruitt. Whatever he says, I'm going to do."

And he's going to do it quickly.

Hyatt was a national top-200 signee who last season led Dutch Fork to a 14-0-1 record, the 5A state championship and a No. 9 MaxPreps ranking nationally. He left Dutch Fork as its all-time leader in receiving yards (3,624) and receiving touchdowns (57) but promises there was a time when he wasn't a speed demon.

"My eighth-grade year, I was very slow," Hyatt said, "but in my ninth-grade year, I started to get in the weight room, and I guess my body started growing up. I went to this regional opening, and it was the first time I ran a 40(-yard dash). I ran it in 4.4 (seconds), so I had confidence after that. The next time I ran the 40, it went down to a 4.31.

"The last time I ran it was a 4.29. When I started running those times, my confidence went higher, and I knew I was faster than everybody else."

Hyatt, who has seven catches for 141 yards (20.14 yards per reception) this season, didn't make this impact just on speed alone. His drive to succeed is reflected by a drive to Atlanta in March to work with freshman quarterback Harrison Bailey for three or four days in the initial stages of the COVID-19 outbreak.

His goal for preseason camp was simply to be prepared, and his favorite position right now might be a bit of a surprise given his love for blowing by people.

"Right now, I love where I'm at," Hyatt said. "The slot has more space you can work with, and when it's man (coverage), you can do more work in the slot. I love the outside, and I played the outside in high school, but slot is probably my favorite position right now."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.